Haruo Matsuoka on Steven Seagal and Aikido’s History in America

Haruo Matsuoka on Steven Seagal and Aikido’s History in America

Black Belt contributing editor Dr. Mark Cheng explores the history of modern aikido relative to the martial paths of the respected Haruo Matsuoka and his former sensei, action star Steven Seagal.

Haruo Matsuoka is a study in contrasts. Although he speaks with a noticeable Japanese accent, he's eloquent in his English explanation of the esoteric concepts of aikido. While he's known as one of the most combat-competent aikido stylists on the planet and was one of the very few who could take falls for Steven Seagal as he executed his vicious aikido throws, he remains disarmingly humble and glows with a happiness that only true stability, contentment and harmony can bring.

Conversations with Haruo Matsuoka lead in a variety of directions, all of which are enlightening and inspiring yet grounded in reality. Perhaps what is most amazing is how his life has mirrored his art, meeting conflict and strife with patience and integrity. When I recently arrived at his dojo in search of answers, he met me at the door as if greeting an old friend, then sat on the tatami mats for the duration of the interview. It was as if there was no distinction in rank, yet there was no lack of etiquette.

The History of Aikido

Born in Osaka, Japan, in the late 1950s, Haruo Matsuoka received an early introduction to aikido and the customs most closely associated with it. His father Shiro Matsuoka was into macrobiotics — a diet that's popular among aikido practitioners in Japan. One year, he took young Haruo Matsuoka to a summer camp dedicated to promoting macrobiotics, and that was where the youth witnessed his first aikido demonstration.

Later, during his high-school years, he participated in judo, which was a standard part of the physical education curriculum.

Just before his 16th birthday, Haruo Matsuoka began taking classes under an instructor named Kobayashi. But the man disappeared after a short time, leaving the dojo unmanaged and unattended. Six months later, Steven Seagal moved to Osaka and reopened the facility as his now-famous Tenshin Dojo.

At 17, Haruo Matsuoka had his first meeting with Steven Seagal, and it left a lasting impression on the youth. Reminiscing about that day, he beamed with a sense of wonder: “When I first met Seagal sensei, his Japanese wasn't so fluent, but his technique was remarkable — unlike what I'd seen before. He was so fast, very fluid. Seeing him doing aikido changed my life."

Haruo Matsuoka signed up on the spot.

“Nothing in my earlier martial arts experiences came close to that moment," he said. Steven Seagal's school sat in a rough part of town known for its yakuza gangsters and prostitutes. “It was only a five-minute walk to the dojo from the train station, but it seemed like a long, long walk," Haruo Matsuoka recalled. “There were many times when I was really scared, as a skinny kid, and walked as fast as possible so I could avoid getting into trouble."

Initially, Haruo Matsuoka trained three times a week, attending classes that were tough and strict. Steven Seagal's aikido had a reputation for being hard core and effective even on the street. And his training philosophy backed that up: Make everything practical for this world — otherwise, it's useless. “Seagal taught a very practical aikido — swift footsteps, hand movements like sword cuts and a body posture that was very straight, very strong," Matsuoka said.

Steven Seagal emphasized the relationship between kenjutsu sword work and aikido, and Haruo Matsuoka began to understand the ways in which hand, foot and body positioning in a sword fight translate to aikido. He could see how those skills enabled the practitioner to smoothly glide out of harm's way while thoroughly exploiting the other person's openings.

“Seagal sensei was my first real master," Haruo Matsuoka said. The American took a personal interest in his new pupil's aikido development almost from the get-go, frequently inquiring about his plans after high school. Before Matsuoka had the opportunity to test for his black belt, Steven Seagal pulled him aside and asked if he wanted to accompany him to America to help him make movies. To the impressionable Japanese teenager, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, inspiring him to persevere in his practice.

Haruo Matsuoka's relationship with his master would never be the same.

Steven Seagal began using him as his uke, demonstrating throws and other aikido techniques on him during class despite his rank. (According to Japanese etiquette, the head instructor demonstrates techniques only on the most senior student, allowing him to learn quickly by feeling each move.) Steven Seagal put him ahead of his seniors and gave him the opportunity to absorb knowledge directly from the source and thus advance more rapidly. “Nothing compares to those days back in Japan," Haruo Matsuoka said. “Our lives were pure aikido."

Earning His Aikido Black Belt

By the time Haruo Matsuoka took his black-belt test in 1978 — during a time when Steven Seagal's exams were held behind closed doors — he passed with flying colors on his first try. His success was the fruit of three months of intensive preparation. Testing in Japan was far different from testing in America, Haruo Matsuoka said. “It isn't something that just happens on the day of your major test. It's an ongoing process that begins months ahead of the actual date, with your master putting you under closer scrutiny for candidacy. Seagal sensei was watching us closely at every practice, helping us grow in aikido."

In 1982 Steven Seagal flew from his new residence in Taos, New Mexico, back to Osaka to conduct a belt test, and Haruo Matsuoka earned his second degree.

In September 1983 he decided to follow his master's path to America — and quickly found himself on the set of The Challenge, a film that starred Scott Glenn and Toshiro Mifune. Haruo Matsuoka played one of Mifune's disciples.

Meanwhile in Osaka, the students of Tenshin Dojo were under the assumption that Steven Seagal and Haruo Matsuoka would return after completing their film projects. Even Haruo Matsuoka thought his stint in America was temporary, but that changed when Steven Seagal divorced his first wife Miyako Fujitani.

It now seemed as if the United States would be the duo's home for the long haul.

How "Above the Law" Changed Aikido

During those early days in America, Haruo Matsuoka and Steven Seagal encountered many difficulties as they strove to promote aikido and run a commercial studio in California. Few Americans had heard of the art, and even fewer had any concept of what it was even after watching a class. “When we started teaching in the San Fernando Valley, we were always hurting in terms of enrollment," Haruo Matsuoka said. “I can't tell you how many times I thought of giving up."

It continued that way for three years until the release of Steven Seagal's first starring vehicle, Above the Law, in 1988.

Above the Law turned the tide for aikido instructors around the world, resulting in an overnight boom in enrollment.

The new Tenshin Dojo found its previously empty tatami mats packed with 30 to 40 students per session.

Haruo Matsuoka continued to serve faithfully as chief instructor of the studio, overseeing the business and doing demonstrations even when he was frequently called away to appear in Steven Seagal movies whenever there was a need for a guy who could withstand the hardest throws and endure the meanest falls.

Those grueling years opened Haruo Matsuoka's eyes to some of aikido's finest treasures. On one level, he became extremely proficient at randori, the multiple-attacker freestyle training method for which the art is known.

But comparing his randori sessions to footage of other aikido instructors' workouts was like placing a stiletto in a rack of butter knives. “You have to move your feet in such a way that you put yourself in a safe position in relation to your attackers," he said.

"Randori is like life: You have problems attacking you from different angles," Haruo Matsuoka explained. "You can try to simply turn and face the first problem that comes to you, but then you'll be overcome by all the other issues you aren't engaging.

“In randori, you must continuously position yourself in such a way that all your attackers have to line up to get to you. When you do that, you can handle them one at a time with finesse without compromising your safety. In aikido, harmony is not static; it's dynamic.

"In the same way, life is not static. You have to constantly reassess your situation, constantly check your priorities and what you are doing to engage them."

During that time, Haruo Matsuoka was privileged to meet one of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba's finest disciples: Seiseki Abe. Morihei Ueshiba and Seiseki Abe shared a special relationship in which Seiseki Abe taught Ueshiba calligraphy while Ueshiba taught Seiseki Abe aikido. Both men imbued their movements with ki to make them more powerful and alive, and the result of their friendship is evident in the enduring relationship between aikido and calligraphy.

Steven Seagal, who had already established a relationship with Seiseki Abe, brought the master to the United States for seminars. Whenever possible, Haruo Matsuoka would meet him and soak up his knowledge. Seiseki Abe left a great impression on Haruo Matsuoka, imparting much insight into aikido spirituality, the relationship between the Kojiki(Record of Ancient Affairs, a Japanese historical text) and aikido, and the importance of kokyu (breath power) training. Indeed, what many aikido instructors simply write off as a warm-up exercise, Seiseki Abe spoke of in great detail.

He clearly explained how the “boat rowing" exercise built ki through its different vowel sounds, breathing patterns and rhythms. He also elucidated the section of the Kojiki from which the exercise was drawn. “We should feel a great effort concentrated at the hara when we practice it," Haruo Matsuoka explained. “That is how we build ki power and what differentiates these kinds of strength-building exercises from weightlifting."

Steven Seagal and Haruo Matsuoka Part Ways

Unfortunately, as Steven Seagal's fame grew, a chasm opened between him and his disciple. Haruo Matsuoka was confused and troubled by it, and the two parted ways in 1997. Haruo Matsuoka talks about that episode in his life with great pain in his voice. Indeed, it was with Steven Seagal that Haruo Matsuoka helped write aikido history in America and around the world, and it was because of Steven Seagal that he'd changed the course of his life to follow his master out of his home country. But now, Haruo Matsuoka was forced to step out on his own. He left the United States and set up shop in Okinawa, where he planned to re-evaluate his life and define his new path.

Luckily, Seiseki Abe was there to help. He reassured Haruo Matsuoka that his departure from Steven Seagal's inner circle would not mean his downfall in aikido. “I was so saddened by the way things turned out, but Abe sensei told me that whom we follow isn't as important as following the example of O-Sensei (Ueshiba) and working hard to emulate him," he said.

Seiseki Abe became Haruo Matsuoka's new tie to the legacy of Morihei Ueshiba through the martial arts and the fine arts. He eventually came to a new understanding and perspective. He related one instance during which Seiseki Abe's personality and actions inspired him: “Once, after a seminar here in the United States, Abe sensei took all the Japanese students aside and gave each of them a book of O-Sensei's waka poetry that was brushed by his own hand to inspire them and remind them of the strength of this aspect of their cultural heritage. He exemplifies the idea that the guy at the top should show the greatest care for the people who follow him."

While Haruo Matsuoka was doing his soul-searching in Japan, his American followers never stopped pulling for him. Many Tenshin Dojo students maintained contact via email and reminded him that he was respected, appreciated and sorely missed. Their messages helped Haruo Matsuoka see that he still had roots in the West, and he started making preparations to return to the States.

"Aiki is not rejection or resistance but fusion," Haruo Matsuoka said. “My students stayed faithful to me in spite of my absence, always checking in on me and reminding me of how much they looked forward to my return. They truly fused with me in that way. In Japan, students don't do that because of the social structure. But here, because Americans see each other as equals, my students felt no compunction about expressing their feelings. That made me feel good inside, and I christened my new group the doshi no kai, or association of friends, in recognition of how their attitude and goodness influenced me."

Seiseki Abe also blessed Haruo Matsuoka's second dojo with an auspicious name. Taken from the concept of Morihei Ueshiba's most famous quote — “Masakatsu, agatsu, katsuhayabi," which means “true victory, self-victory, instant victory" — Seiseki Abe christened the new school the Ikazuchi Dojo, or Thunder Dojo. Its appropriateness becomes obvious as soon as one witnesses the force with which Haruo Matsuoka's opponents hit the ground during his demos.

With a studio in Irvine, California, and the Doshinokai headquarters in West Los Angeles, Haruo Matsuoka has a growing student base domestically and internationally. And thanks to the practical roots he cultivated during his early years with Steven Seagal and the depth of his current training with Seiseki Abe, his aikido continues to evolve — all to the benefit of the world martial arts community.

Photos by Robert Reiff

About the Author: Dr. Mark Cheng is a Black Belt contributing editor. Visit his website here.

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